There are only a few things that can be said in politics with absolute certainty. The most important of these to reflect on is that politics is never easy and never simple. Over the last month, our screens have been bleeding with news reports of horrific police brutality and the waving of different flags, championing what at its best could be patriotism and at its worst nationalism. Beyond the rhetoric and the violence, the debate and the debacle, lies an issue that is growing more malignant by the second.
To those who have are out of the loop, this issue of Catalan independence is not new; the distinct culture has always set itself apart from the rest of Spain. Since the death of the dictatorial Francisco Franco in 1975 and the subsequent renewal of the Spanish democratic process, the emergence of Catalan autonomy became a major part of the European discourse. Even in Britain, the mention of Catalonia has fluttered around the top political circles of the country. One of the driving arguments in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the guarantee Scotland would never be allowed to join the European Union since Spain would veto out of fear that it would set a dangerous precedent.
The former President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, called for a referendum on independence in their regional parliament in early September. When the opposition refused to turn up to vote on the motion, it passed but quickly ran into trouble when the Spanish Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the October 1st vote illegally went ahead and reportedly garnered a ‘yes to independence’ vote from 92% of those who voted which was only a mere 43% turnout. The vote was highly controversial due to allegations of voting fraud from the pro-independence side and police suppression on the side of the Spanish state.
Protests on both sides erupted which led the respective factions being dragged back to the negotiating table. Silence fell on the situation until Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, declared that Catalonia had been stripped of its self-autonomy, abolishing Puigdemont’s office. Less than a week later, the Catalan parliament secretly voted and declared independence from Spain on the 27th October.
The Spanish government then proceeded to arrest the leaders of Catalonia, like Vice President Oriol Junqueras, with many other senior figures fleeing to Belgium, like Puigdmont himself. Operations resumed, independence protests crowded the streets and the world’s focus drifted away. The Catalan Republic, October 27th to October 31st, left to be a footnote in history with Puigdemont guaranteed asylum in Belgium.
While there is no doubt that no side has handled this process well, a question to many unfamiliar with the situation beckons: why would they even want independence?
Supporters of independence argue strongly that they do not benefit from their Spanish union. Having to contribute around 17 billion euros to the Spanish government annually and not receiving anywhere close to that in return, they’re crippled by a debt that they see as unfair and unnecessary. Their opponents claim that this doesn’t consider the benefits of the single market and tourism they receive from the freedom of movement which only comes from European Union membership. An independent Catalonia’s EU application process would probably be hampered by Spain – however that would only pour salt into what looks like an already infected wound.
Arguments against lie in the fact it would damage both economies and lead to an effect known as ‘balkanisation.’ Just like after the decline of the Soviet Union, there is the possibility this could lead to a rush of independence that could remould the face of Europe and splinter the European Union into a shell of its current form. Moreover, the technical issues of leaving Spain would be gargantuan. They would need a new currency, their own armed forces and the administrative processes would be difficult and lengthy. But: ‘who cares?’ the people ask, not those who want freedom.
This is not an issue of economies and bureaucracy but a battle of the identity, culture and values of modern Spain. As aforementioned, there is a Catalan culture and language. They have their own traditions, like ‘Els Castells,’ and cuisine, like fideua and Mel i Mató. However, they are also part of Spain. They share a story, a deep history and the creative flair to which we identify both so well.
The narrative of this issue is more complex than the wars of ideology of which it is coloured. It’s not a battle of freedom versus tyranny or solidarity versus selfishness. It is, however, the defining issue of their time and the world watches, waiting, for the dust to settle.